Seeing things differently…

By Rev Margaret Middleton

Pentecost 1 Isaiah 6: 1-8 John 3:1-17

Last Sunday we had a wonderful celebration of Pentecost, the birth of the Christian Church through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. That means according to the Lectionary, this is Trinity Sunday.

What can I say about the concept of God as Trinity: Three in one,
One in Three? There is no specific mention of the Trinity in Scripture.
It is only implied as in the reading from the Gospel of John. It is a doctrine- the result of the church’s some 250 years of reflecting on scripture and on its experience of God’s self-revelation, through scripture and the church’s continuing experience of God.
The Trinity will always remain a mystery.

John in his gospel, suggests we can only truly begin to catch glimpses of God’s mystery when we are born again – that is when we are prepared to be so open to God’s mystery, we are able to see through fresh eyes, to be transformed, to begin again in our understanding of who God is and how God is at work among us. To see things differently.

Let’s ponder the Nicodemus story in John’s gospel a little more.
Nicodemus is somewhat of a mystery character. He slips in to talk to Jesus under the cover of night and then is not heard of again until the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. However, as a Pharisee and religious leader, he was a very powerful man. And even though this was a very important conversation with its Trinitarian overtones, John is the only writer to include this encounter and it is heavily overlaid with typical Johannine symbolism. Night and darkness being blindness to truth, or it may refer to the chaos and darkness that existed before the birth of Creation, the coming of life. It is difficult to flesh out this story but what we can say is that Jesus told Nicodemus he needed to be born again.

I wonder what Jesus meant? I think Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to have a new way of understanding how God was at work and what God was revealing as the way of the kingdom. You could say Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to allow the fresh wind of the Spirit to blow away old concepts, start again and see things differently.

Opening heart and minds to new visions and ideas has always been the Spirit’s work. Indeed, the Spirit has opened our minds to renewed understandings of the created world around us. Hardly surprising since the Spirit was present and involved with the world’s creation.
For example, no longer do we believe in a three-tiered world and nor do we believe that the earth is the centre of the universe.
We now know disease is not the curse of some evil being but that disease is often caused by microbes that cannot be seen with the human eye.

The Spirit is also at work in our understandings of who we are as human beings and has tried to teach us that all human beings have the same needs and aspirations.

I believe the Spirit is at work at this present moment opening our eyes to some awful realities, touching our hearts to acknowledge our role in those realities and giving us strength to make changes.

Climate change is one such reality. We are beginning to see things differently.

The impact of the imposition of Christian beliefs on indigenous peoples is now being understood across the world, apologies are being made and understanding is growing. In our own country, recognition and justice is slowly happening. As the failed referendum has shown, we have a long way to go.

The way many Christian Churches now see the Rainbow community is also the work of the Spirit blowing where she will.

This morning, I want to suggest the Spirit is blowing across another reality – exposing it and urging Christian churches and society at large, to face up to the scourge of domestic and family violence. And to see things differently. So, a warning – this will not be a comforting sermon this morning. In fact, it could be for some, very disturbing!

You see, there are many causes of domestic and family violence, but I believe the Spirit of wisdom and understanding is opening our eyes to the role Christian teaching has played over the centuries in normalising behaviours that have been ignored or denied as contributing factors and in some cases the only reason.

Let me go back to Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was a ruler, a Pharisee – he studied and taught the law as he had received it and understood it. The same law that Jesus grew up with and knew well. Jesus invited Nicodemus to see differently. To look beyond the law to the people God created and loved. Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to consider the value of each person in the eyes of God and love them through and beyond the law and the teaching of his day. Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to be born again.

Here is a parable for the Christian Church, one I hear speaking into our times. Saying to the Church that it needs to be born again. To look through different eyes. To ask, “what role has Christian teaching played in domestic and family violence?” And I suggest it begins with the Christian understanding of marriage and the rites that reflect it.

Until very recent times, all vows included that the promise of the wife to love and obey her husband. Underpinning that promise was and still is, the understanding that the husband is the head of the house and the wife to be submissive. Further when children are born to the couple, the children will obey their parents. Definitely a Biblical teaching found in New Testament writings, especially the of Paul letter to the Ephesians.

But, despite all Paul’s exhortations of mutual love and submissiveness in Ephesians, the concept of the headship of the husband has developed under the influence of historic western patriarchal attitudes. Couple this with the Genesis story of the man being created first and the woman being formed from the man’s rib to be a help mate, it is not hard to see where the sense of superiority and entitlement among many men has come from and how, among many women, the idea that any form of punishment meted out to them must have been their fault because they have not been submissive or obedient or even good enough.

Add to that, the carry over influence of early Christian theologians such as Tertullian who believed that the curse of Eve is born upon every woman, so every woman bears responsibility for the sins and destruction and the pains of humanity! So, she deserves everything she gets!

But it doesn’t stop there. Another Christian understanding based on Scriptural references which has exacerbated the problem is that of forgiveness. Despite the verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse experienced, many women have been advised to forgive, forgive and forgive again and at all costs, remember your marriage vows. Pray for his soul. God will give you strength to endue and enable you to be a good wife.

Further, we must face the knowledge that in many of the horrific recent cases in NSW (apparently 27% of those reported this year alone), male perpetrators professed Christian church affiliations.

How troubling is it then, to realise that the violence experienced by women and children in their homes, the violence and attitude towards women that is so deeply embedded, so culturally and historically embedded in our society, has its roots in the way the Bible has been interpreted over the years and, in some places, continues to be understood?

No longer can we ignore or forget the terrible number of deaths of women in intimate relationships at the hands of men. So, what can we do?
We can and should speak up when we see any form of abuse occurring and call it out for what it is.
We can encourage victims to seek help and support them where we can.
At the very least, we can be a supportive listener.
We can talk to our own families and grandchildren especially where the problem is present.

May I also suggest Christianity must be born again? It needs to allow the Spirit to open hearts and minds to understand family relationships in a different way to what has developed over time. I believe all Churches must recognise the role Scripture has played in perpetuating such behaviours, apologise and at the very least, begin by changing marriage vows to reflect a mutually respectful, loving and caring relationship by both partners – as the UCA insightfully did at its inception.

If you are a woman who has had or is experiencing any form of violence in your home, please know it is, nor ever was, your fault.
You are beloved of God who wants you to live a full, creative and fruitful life, free from violence and abuse of any kind. And please, come and talk to me or Sharon or a trusted person if you are comfortable to do so.

All Christian churches are challenged by the crisis of violence towards women and children our society. Like Nicodemus we are offered a choice. We can stay guardians of a system of understanding that has stood for hundreds of years or we can feel the wind of Spirit blowing to bring about new life. As her breath touches us, may we see things differently and have the courage to be agents of the Good news of Jesus Christ in our families, our homes and workplaces, in our churches and in our society. Come, Holy Spirit, come.

Rev Margaret Middleton

Various Sources
including Gregory Jenks in gregoryjenks – revisioning faith … shaping holy lives
Daily Mail List 10 May, 2024 [Relevant 03 May copyright 2024. More]

Photo of Rev Margaret Middleton

Written by Rev Margaret Middleton

The Rev Margaret Middleton is a retired Uniting Church minister. She occasionally provides supply ministry in the wider church but leads worship in TUC regularly. 

Margaret also supports our work by leading several groups of people seeking to grow and deepen their faith. She is a member of the Karralika outreach team and serves as an elder within the church.

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